One of the more surprising perks of our relocation from North Carolina to California has been the thrill of complete anonymity. I did not think I would ever see this as a benefit, but now that I have gotten past the loneliness, I luxuriate in obscurity. I can take my morning walk without putting on lip gloss or even combing through my hair. I don’t have to worry about avoiding someone I may have offended with my political views or making up excuses to decline positions on volunteer boards and committees. I have been rescued, temporarily, from the albatross of society.
No longer are there the spontaneous visits from my parents, “the dreaded drop-ins” as my father called them, a habit they could not break despite years of desperate pleas from my lips to their ears. I can spend the entire day at the computer immersed in the drama of my long-simmering novel and the telephone will not ring—not once. No distractions, no excuses. I have passed more than one day in a T-shirt and yoga pants, worn flip-flops (Rainbow sandals) as real shoes and have even gone to the grocery at this level of undressedness. No one knows me. No one cares. It just doesn’t matter. Hey, it’s California!
I have met a few people I really like, although I find I am not interested in establishing any sort of social network; I have that from my former life. Making friends has never been a problem for me, but I already have true friends, devoted and genuine allies bound by our individual truths. Time, now, is too valuable to cultivate acquaintances for superficial gains.
The downside to this new view is that my husband, Robert, and I enjoy entertaining in our home, and we have honed our respective skills to bring people together for great food, vintage wine and dynamic conversation. I guess, at some point, I’ll begin the hunt for potential dinner guests. This will not prove to be too difficult. As any Tar Heel can tell you, there is only one degree of separation between a North Carolinian and the rest of the world. We’re friendly, we like to socialize, and we travel everywhere.
Robert has found his tribe through his profession, and every morning at 7:30 he happily takes to the freeway to work with a team he respects. Our son Henry leaves at about the same time to head to the neighborhood school; he has dispelled the myth of the stereotypical Southerner by excelling academically, and has charmed his peers with keen wit and easy-going ways. I’m the one all dressed up with nowhere to go, nothing but unpacking to do.
My constant companions, in order of importance: our two curly-coated retrievers, Rosie and Scout, faithful listeners and energetic walking buddies; The New York Times, delivered to my front door seven days a week; and National Public Radio, which I catch on KPBS San Diego while doing freeway time and at home through WUNC-Chapel Hill’s online audio stream. I really love these guys.
The importance of those voices is something I think about as I pass the many, many homeless men and women who hang out under the bridges and at the intersections and in the public parks of this mild-weather city. I’ve never seen so many homeless, elderly women—voiceless, wandering shadows where the sun abundantly shines. Their obscurity is, by circumstance, mine by choice, but it feels a common thread just the same. I am so damned lucky. What do they cling to for companionship?
The saga of the trailing spouse is not a tale I had seriously considered until I became part of it. Yet thousands of women have found themselves in my position. Earlier this summer during a visit to North Carolina, my sister and I discovered letters written by our grandmother in the early 1950s, describing her struggle with loneliness when my grandfather’s career sent them to Michigan. She, too, left a teenage daughter in school in North Carolina.
I have a few friends whose husbands are required to relocate every few years, women whose need for companionship and community is largely ignored. The young wife who sat next to me on the return flight to California had been unable to establish her own career because she had followed her husband to medical school in D.C. and was now preparing to move to Chicago for his four years of residency. She loved the adventure, she said, but already questioned the sacrifice.
This used to be my sad, sad story, but I was never one for extended wallowing. It tends to get boring. Once the boxes were unpacked, the older children were settled into their respective colleges and boarding school, and I had mourned all of my life-altering losses, I set about making space for myself—a task especially difficult for women, who spend nearly every waking moment thinking of others’ needs. It was the combination of anonymity and a nearly empty nest that set me free.
Finally, I decided to hunt for my own tribe in this new city—not Southerners or former New Yorkers or Episcopalians or grad school alums, but writers and photographers and lovers of great books. My search has unearthed several gems thus far: a gifted and caring writing instructor at the University of California-San Diego who led our class with honest but supportive critique and applauded my voice when I felt I had none; the small but first-rate Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park; and a wonderful independent bookshop named The Book Works, a tiny but satisfying substitute for my former book haunt, Quail Ridge Books, which fed my literary soul when Rizzoli was no longer an option.
I intend to inhabit my world of local anonymity until I have finished writing the novel. I do have a time frame in mind and it’s a short work—a mere blip on Tolstoy’s screen. But I know where I’m going with the plot and the telling gets easier every day. And when the last chapter has found its end and the characters have all gone home, I’m throwing the best dinner party of my life.